Thankful for the tonic of tradition

November 20, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - "I'll be making the green bean casserole," says my aunt with a slight hint of defiance. She waits for my familiar retort, my annual and hostile review of the 1950s dish that will take its place on my 2001 table.

"The dreaded green bean casserole, you mean," I reply half-heartedly. The truth is that I am not up to the battle. Betty Crocker is welcome this year. Canned green beans and canned mushroom soup and canned onions: So be it.

Thanksgiving has come early and just in time. My eyes, fastened on the anxieties of the world, now turn back home. My vision of a vulnerable, uncertain future now focuses on the perfect production - no, reproduction - of our family's holiday history. I pass up the new recipes in the paper for the old recipes in our family book. I want to make this year look, taste, like last year. Then maybe it will feel like last year.

Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday long before it was passed down one doorway and one generation into my hands. Now I am the keeper of this holiday.

But this year, I take nothing for granted. Not the plane bringing my children home. Not the raucous reunion that bounces off my dining room walls. And not, surely, our good luck.

A few days ago, I read a story about two brothers lost in the World Trade Center disaster. Every Thanksgiving Joe and Dan Shea made the same toast at the table: "How lucky are we. How lucky are we."

It became their trademark, the words that made the kids' eyes roll in loving mockery. On Sept. 11, the Sheas ran out of luck. Now I think about how often luck and loss compete for a place at the table in our personal and national history.

Do you remember studying that first Thanksgiving in 1621 as a celebration of good harvest, good fortune? The first families crossed the Atlantic in a wine ship called the Mayflower with their meager assortment of property: goats, sheep, beds, tables, spices.

One passenger brought 126 pairs of shoes. Another brought a copy of Ceasar's Gallic Wars and a History of Turkie.

In that first year, they lost half - half - their number. Governor Bradford lost his wife before she even went ashore. She fell - or jumped - off the ship while it sailed the barren coast of Cape Cod.

That winter, wives and husbands and children died of illness and famine so severe that at one point only seven were well enough to take care of the rest.

"No group of settlers in America," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, "was so ill-fitted by experience and equipment to cope with the wilderness as this little band of peasants, town laborers and shopkeepers; yet none came through their trials so magnificently."

Exactly 380 harvests ago, the remaining settlers and the Indians who had helped them survive shared their famous three-day feast. But each one of the Pilgrims was a mourner as well as a celebrant. Each one bore a huge loss to this first Thanksgiving.

Is it so hard for their heirs to imagine such a gathering? My own table will be filled with family from 15 to 87 years old. Like every family, we know about luck and loss. We have our hollow places along with our full platters.

But this year there also are empty seats at the national table. We have lost towers full of Americans, and our collective sense of security has been shattered. It's not just the Shea family who will have trouble raising a glass to "how lucky are we."

At a time like this, tradition is an act of will, not inertia. It's less a given than a gift.

We bake family tradition as ballast against the Sept. 11 alarm that rang out a single message: Everything has changed. We serve tradition as proof of continuity in the midst of change, resilience in the midst of loss.

So on this Thanksgiving I will place my grandmother's plates before children who never met her but know her stories. We will eat lemon pie for the best of all reasons: because we always eat lemon pie. And around my table, there will be comfort food, a heady old family recipe of green beans and gratitude.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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